With Der Ring des Nibelungen, an epic in four very long operas, Richard Wagner poses theatrical challenges that by general agreement are second to none. Old Norse gods on mountaintops, demigods in deep forests, giants shaking the earth, dwarves in the mines, a Sleeping Beauty warrior maiden encircled by magic fire, mermaids frolicking in their watery element—Wagner calls for all this, and more. If once upon a time, directors felt obliged to render his imagery in storybook fashion, since the mid 20th century the game has been to extract its riches by other means. The now-legendary Ring nut Sherwin Sloan, who died this year at 72, attended a reported 90 complete cycles since catching the bug in Seattle in 1975. The spectrum of directorial perspectives available to him ranged from prehistoric to intergalactic, Wild West to Hindu, Marxist to Jungian, deconstructionist to Classic Comics. Some presentations were rigorously true to a single vision, others unabashedly mix-and-match.
Yes, Ring cycles are a dime a dozen now, yet to this day every new one is touted as a historic event. After nearly a quarter of a century, the Metropolitan Opera's reactionary Otto Schenk edition has given way to a new take by the marquee-name theater artist Robert Lepage. Installment 1, Das Rheingold, opened the season on September 27, went viral with an HD broadcast on October 9, and returns for two shows in the spring, setting up part 2, Die Walküre. The remaining chapters—Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—are on the agenda for next season, along with the first presentations of the full cycle.
As theater, Lepage's spectacle could hardly have fallen flatter. That's the bad news. The worse news is that it almost surely will not improve. And the good news? I can't think of any good news.
Two wildly dissimilar productions—one a touchstone Ring of six decades ago, the other a site-specific Lepage lollapalooza for Cirque de Soleil in Las Vegas—help pinpoint what went wrong.
The Ring in question was mounted by Richard Wagner's grandson Wieland Wagner in 1951 for the reopening of the Bayreuth Festival, founded by the composer-librettist in 1876 for the premiere of this very work. Built to Wagner's revolutionary specifications, the auditorium featured a covered orchestra pit that descended below the edge of the stage. Though meant to be temporary, the structure remains in operation today. The experience of its unique acoustic inspired Wagner in the compositions of his valedictory Parsifal (1881).
Over the years, the Bayreuth Festival soon established itself as the supreme shrine of a global Wagner cult. The only works performed are the seven of his official canon (also including Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Tristan und Isolde, but not their precursors Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, or Rienzi). Visitors pour in from the four corners of the earth. The demand for tickets reportedly exceeds supply nearly nine to one.
As Wieland and his brother Wolfgang recognized, reviving the Bayreuth Festival would require a radical paradigm shift. It was no secret that during the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler had taken the keenest interest in the doings there. Wagner's racism and German-supremacist ideology being impossible to deny, Hitler's appropriation (abuse?) of both his music and his mystique remains a scandal to this day. Reasserting their grandfather's genius would be the easy part for the new generation. The more crucial challenge would be to denazify him. And the job would have to be done on a shoestring. There was simply no money.
Wieland's solution: to stage the entire Ring on a shallow tilted disc. Costumes were simple to a fault, the prop list pared to the bare minimum. The lighting is said to have worked wonders. Most important of all, Wieland drew from his singers characterizations of unsurpassed clarity and depth. Timeless, nonrepresentational, deliberately apolitical, his Ring played out simultaneously as searing human drama and as an allegory of archetypes. It was one of the most influential productions in theater history. Building on this model, later productions added a strategic slash or two, allowing a disc to be twisted like a lemon slice, creating openings and pinnacles useful for suggesting rocky crags and caves. At an abstract level, the geometry also conveyed an initially innocent world increasingly rent asunder by greed and envy.
Lepage's hugely costly 45-ton unit set—the "machine," as they are calling it backstage—consists of 24 planks, placed side by side on a single axis, like clothes pins on a laundry line. Each plank is free to rotate independent of the others, and the axis can be raised and lowered. In a flat, neutral position, the assembly is not much to look at. Sculpturally it has possibilities, scarcely hinted at thus far. If Lepage so chose, the contraption might—like a disc capable of transformations—serve as an emblem of a world in violent conflict, but at quarter time, we have seen nothing but clunky window-dressing. The colossal machinery leaves the players no room to move. Worse, Lepage has given them nothing to do, nothing to think about, nothing to be. The show has barely even been blocked.
Occasionally a character gets hoisted on a wire, or someone slides down a steep incline on his or her belly, head first, to vanish in a narrow trench. Then someone (often someone else in an identical costume) pops back up to vocalize. More impressive, but not much, was the cinematic "overhead" view of two suspended stunt doubles bounding "down" a spiral staircase knocked sideways from the mountaintops that are the dwelling of the gods to the bowels of the earth, where the dwarves dig for treasure. (Let's not get hung up on the fuddy-duddy costumes, like parody relics of the bad old days.) Prominent among the special effects are video patterns freshly computer-generated and drably projected for each performance. If the sight of gravel giving way under the foot of a man repeatedly climbing up the same incline excites you, this would be the show to see.
Such effects, on a Pharaonic scale and delivered with immeasurably greater showmanship, have been on view since November 2004 in KÀ, Lepage's Cirque du Soleil extravaganza at the MGM Grand on the Strip in Las Vegas. B.K. (before KÀ), the Cirque template was to present the most astonishing of acts in shows held together by themes of pure gossamer: H2O, flight, the songs of the Beatles. Lepage instead embedded the artistes in the story of imperial twins separated in youth and flung onto separate paths of tribulation and self-discovery. (Willy-nilly, a Wagnerian flashes on the ill-starred twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, reunited in Die Walküre just long enough for their son Siegfried to be conceived.) The downside: individual virtuosity—the soul of the Cirque experience—more or less disappeared in the larger blur.
Be it said that the larger blur has a tectonic grandeur of its own. Rather than a floor, the stage consists of seven moving platforms and lifts, two of them tremendous, the others smaller, all hung in a cosmic void. The so-called Sand Cliff Deck, which rotates 360 degrees and tilts from flat to 100 degrees, measures a staggering 25 by 50 feet and weighs 50 tons. It, too, is equipped to display computer images generated in real time. The concentric shock waves set off by the running feet seem the visible boom of a kettledrum. By comparison with KÀ (developed at a cost of $200 million, including the cost of the theater), the Met machine looks puny, but the real problem is that on its own terms it does not work.
In closing let me just add that the transfer of Cirque-caliber razzle-dazzle to the opera house is a notion I have fantasized about for years. (See "Lessons from a Wagnerian Las Vegas," New York Times, December 12, 1999.) But not this way.